July / August 2024

The Thames Skiff

A “monstrously inconvenient and uncomfortable machine”
The author Tom Pamperin rowing.

CATHY PAMPERIN

The author and his wife undertook a 75-mile rowing trip on the River Thames in EALA, a 25’ traditionally crafted Thames skiff built by Tom Balm. Though the trek took them through terrain that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the author’s native Wisconsin, dozens of arched bridges built of brick and stone lent a distinctly English charm to the surroundings.

When I contacted Tom Balm of Thames Skiff Hire to ask about renting a traditional camping skiff for a weeklong trip on the River Thames in England, he said I was in luck: although his fleet was often fully booked during the summer, there was a boat available in late July, after the finish of Swan Upping. I had no idea what Swan Upping was, but I immediately reserved a skiff for six days and started thinking about how I might convince my wife, Cathy, to join me. Her opinion of small boats aligns closely with that of playwright James Albery, whose 1876 Cassell’s Family Magazine article “Camping Out on the Thames” carries a warning for prospective boat campers:

...remember that you are travelling in a vehicle that, if it were not for the charm of the scene and the pleasure of the companionship of good fellows, you would vote a monstrously inconvenient and uncomfortable machine.

But the prospect of visiting the picturesque villages and charming riverside pubs that I assured Cathy we’d discover on our journey outweighed her reservations. She agreed to come along, and I was more than happy to have her. In addition to having pleasant company for the trip, it would be far simpler to navigate the locks with a two-person crew. I suspected the quality of our meals at camp would be significantly improved by her participation as well.

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